WE WILL PRESERVE SPAIN AS WE KNOW IT

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MADRID Pablo Casado believes he’s got just one path to power and it starts with a hard turn to the right. Ahead of the Spanish general election on April 28, the fresh-faced leader of the conservative Popular Party has been burnishing his right-wing credentials and presenting himself as the only alternative to Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Casado, 38, has ramped up the rhetoric on issues ranging from abortion to migration, from Catalan independence to security and economics. He has flirted with nationalist, culture-war rhetoric that some say has more in common with the populist wave surging across the world than with the careful approach of his predecessor Mariano Rajoy.

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Mariano Rajoy

“We’re at a crossroads, in which we need to decide not only what economic, territorial, educational or social policy we want for our country, but also whether we want to preserve the Spanish nation as we know it,” Casado told a crowd in Madrid as he kicked off his official electoral campaign last week.

In Catalonia, Casado has suggested imposing direct rule over the region — as Rajoy did after the region’s parliament declared independence in October 2017. Only this time, Madrid would take over not just for a few months but indefinitely and establish control over regional institutions that were left untouched during the previous intervention, including the public media.

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“Pablo Casado is being influenced by what’s happening in other European right-wing parties” — José Antonio Zarzalejos, writer and journalist.

On migration, he’s argued for increased border security and insisted that migrants should adapt to Spanish customs, which can be taken to read no-way do you settle here. On economics, he’s advocated for aggressive tax cuts.

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Pedro Sánchez

Within the party, Casado has promoted a cohort of media-savvy, young cadres with a taste for ideological fights and political incorrectness to the highest levels of the organization. These new arrivals mark a contrast with the bureaucratic profiles who dominated Rajoy’s mandate.

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Some of Casado’s changes are only rhetorical. His party’s electoral program, for example, doesn’t mention the word “abortion.” Instead, it promises help for women who do want to have their children. It also doesn’t include radical proposals against immigration and leaves open to interpretation whether Madrid would immediately apply a direct rule in Catalonia.

But taken together, Casado’s repositioning of the Popular Party amounts to a conservative revolution. Some rivals and observers argue that he has placed his party at a critical juncture, from which it could take a path that would see it transform from a traditional conservative party to a populist right-wing force.

“Pablo Casado is being influenced by what’s happening in other European right-wing parties,” said writer and journalist José Antonio Zarzalejos, citing as examples the rising far-right party Vox in Spain, as well as the rightward shift of conservative parties or the emergence of large right-wing populist forces in Italy, France, Hungary, and Austria.

On his party’s right, Casado needs to cope with the far-right Vox, which burst onto the scene in a regional election in December in Andalusia and whose leader, Santiago Abascal, served in the Popular Party but now dismisses it as “la derechita cobarde,” the “little, cowardly right.”

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On the other flank, Casado faces a threat from the liberal Ciudadanos party, which has moved from the center to compete for right-wing votes with impeccable anti-separatist credentials in Catalonia and no history of corruption — two problematic issues for the Popular Party. A conservative counterrevolution could be in the offing.

Video: Pedro Sánchez welcomes migrants

MICHAEL WALSH is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of RISE OF THE SUN WEELEUROPE ARISE, TROTSKY’S WHITE NEGROES, MEGACAUST, DEATH OF A CITYWITNESS TO HISTORY, THE BUSINESS BOOSTER and THE FIFTH COLUMN VOLUME I and II, and 50 other book titles.

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